Barb's Blog

Believe It - Or Not!

Do you believe that medical research done at prestigious universities and funded by the United States of America is reliable?  Do you believe that scientists “go where the data takes us” and report their findings with an eye to objectivity and truth?  Do you trust that the medical information your doctor receives is accurate?  

A recent article in The Washington Post raises some disturbing issues around these questions.

Daniel Yuan, a medical doctor and statistician, was skeptical of study results coming out of a lab at Johns Hopkins Medical School, research that was funded by the National Institutes of Health.  He felt that the numbers “didn’t add up.”  He questioned the study’s data, ran his own numbers, told his colleagues of his concerns, and brought up the issue with the lab’s director.  “At first, it was like, ‘Okay — but I don’t really see it,’ ” Yuan recalled. “Then it started to smell bad.” 

Despite his expressed reservations and objections a paper on the research was published in Nature, which, according to The Washington Post, is “arguably the field’s most prestigious journal.”  The Post goes on: “The medical school even issued a news release when the article appeared last year: “Studies Linked To Better Understanding of Cancer Drugs.” 

Yuan wrote to Nature’s editors criticizing the paper’s analysis and conclusions.  Yu-yi Lin, the lead author of the paper, was to respond to Yuan’s objections.  On the day his response was due he was found dead of an apparent suicide.  In an e-mail sent after his death, he seemed to blame Yuan for his end.

Originally Nature told Yuan it “probably” would write a correction, and when The Washington Post came sniffing around a Johns Hopkins spokesperson said that Nature would “address” the issue.  However, in the six months since the Yuan contacted Nature, no correction has been put forth.  Further NIH’s Office on Research Integrity declined to investigate, leaving such investigation to the University – the entity that produced the research. 

The Post details the stress researchers are under to be “productive.”  It describes the necessity of weighing improvement of data analyses against the constrictions of deadlines and need to protect funding. 

It states: 

"[T]he incident comes amid a phenomenon that some call a “retraction epidemic.”

"Last year, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud had increased tenfold since 1975.

"The same analysis reviewed more than 2,000 retracted biomedical papers and found that 67 percent of the retractions were attributable to misconduct, mainly fraud or suspected fraud.

“'You have a lot of people who want to do the right thing, but they get in a position where their job is on the line or their funding will get cut, and they need to get a paper published,” said Ferric C. Fang, one of the authors of the analysis and a medical professor at the University of Washington. “Then they have this tempting thought: If only the data points would line up . . . '"

Medical research is no small business operation:  according to the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools, NIH awarded Johns Hopkins University $607 million in fiscal year 2012.

Since publication “[t]he paper has been cited 11 times by other published papers building on the findings.”  Meaning that, if in fact the findings were inaccurate or inaccurately represented, the subsequent studies that relied on them must be called into question.  However, as of today, the original paper stands as written.

It has not been proven that Lin did what Yuan alleges.  Yet the Post outlines clearly the pressure scientists are under to produce the “right” results and the reluctance of others to question them.  Does any of this sound like any other arena of life?  Is this any different than an athlete who takes steroids to improve his game?  Or a fund manager who fudges numbers to get a better bottom line?

Money and status are potent motivators - whether you are talking about sports, business, science, or any other field.  Better monitoring of scientific research is necessary to protect our health and our nation’s investment in science.

Copyright 2013.  Do not reproduce without permission. 




© Barbara Raimondo 2015